I know I’m not the first to be captivated by a fascination with the Amazon Rain Forest. For anyone with even a slight case of wanderlust, the very concept of an ecosystem so large that it dominates the majority of an entire continent is traveler’s catnip. So when my circumstances led me to travel to Ecuador, I made it a specific point to see this mysterious landscape for myself.
Of course, being so large, there are countless areas from which to begin an exploration. Even in Ecuador itself, there are many reserves and national parks preserving wide swathes of rain forest as it descends from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains. After researching my options, I decided that the Cuyabeno Reserve in the northeastern part of the country – just a few miles from the border with Columbia – would be my point of entry, and my gateway to one of the most exotic of all exotic destinations.
In the course of my research I learned a lot about the region, what to expect, transportation options and accommodations. If you’re one to hear the call of the wild, I invite you to read on for a detailed rundown of planning a trip to the jungle.
Where is Cuyabeno Reserve?
As I just mentioned, it is in the northeastern section of the country, close to the borders of Columbia and Peru. The nearest commercial airport would be Lago Agrio (LGQ) in the gritty oil town of Nueva Loja, which can be reached via an 8 hour bus ride, or a 45 minute flight (I highly recommend the flight).
How Do I Get There?
Even if you just spent the night on a bus getting to Nueva Loja, your travels are far from over. From the city it takes a two hour bus ride through jungle-clad hills awash in green to a place called “El Puente”. As the names suggests, this a bridge, where you will then disembark, use the facilities at a snack bar/visitor center, then be loaded onto a canoe for another two hours of travel down the river. Most accommodation is centered around Laguna Grande – a large lagoon with various ‘resorts’ tucked away along its tributaries. Outsiders are not allowed to visit the reserve without being accompanied by a guide, so it’s important to book a tour (usually including accommodations, meals and the aforementioned guide) with one of the many outfitters that offer them – including many agencies in the capital city of Quito. As for me, I booked directly through the Caiman Eco Lodge website.
What Are Accommodations Like?
In general, the lodges in Cuyabeno are not ‘luxury’ properties by most people’s standards. While costing quite a bit more than staying in a hostel – a pastime highly favored among young backpackers – the facilities are still on the rustic side. But have I mentioned that you’re in the middle of the Amazon jungle? What else do you expect?
The Caiman Eco Lodge was par for the course as far as Cuyabeno accommodations go. You arrive at a long wooden dock where there is an unused lobby and steps leading up into an open area lined by thatched roofed huts that house several bedrooms apiece. Anchoring each end of the clearing are larger buildings. At the far end is a tower containing more hotel rooms until you reach the top, where you can relax in a small lounge or climb up to the roof for a canopy-eye view of the lodge (and apparently the next one over as well). Near the dock is the main building, which houses the open kitchen, a large dining area, some comfortable seating and the tiny bar. Connected to this via a raised walkway is the building near the dock, which on its upper floor houses a room full of hammocks overlooking the river. Personally, this was my favorite place on the property.
The room comes standard with screened windows, a tiny porch with a clothesline that would be useful if the sun decided to show up, and mosquito netting to go over the beds. There’s a private bathroom and shower, but bear in mind that the toilets are for organic materials only. So if it didn’t come out of you, it shouldn’t go in there. There’s a small trash can for any paper used, which honestly should be changed more often than it was.
Though cramped, rustic, and not at all soundproof, the accommodations did not disappoint. A trip like this is supposed to make you feel like you’re on an island of civilization in the middle of the wild – mainly because it is. And while I personally didn’t have too much of the ‘wild’ come into my room to visit – besides a pair of frogs that took us by surprise – I should mention that the potential is there. I’m not going to lie – every trip to the bathroom was first accompanied by a sweep with my flashlight for any unwanted visitors.
How Is the Food?
Since you’re literally hours from the nearest town, it’s not like you can just go out for a bite to eat. Meals are included in all packages and served at set times, usually just before or after included activities – which I’ll go into more in a second.
At the Caiman Eco Lodge I found the food to be far better than expected. Breakfasts were full and tasty, lunch usually consisted of a soup, main dish and dessert and dinners were much fancier fare than one would suspect to find so far out in the jungle. As an added bonus, there’s lots of opportunity to mingle with other guests during meals, and the camaraderie created makes for a greater shared experience.
What is There To Do & See in Cuyabeno?
Each lodge offers its own guided activities, but generally speaking they break down into a few basic universal offerings.
By far the most popular activity is to head out on a motorized boat or canoe to search for wildlife (more on that soon). Another popular option are guided hikes through the jungle with explanations of the various flora and its use by native peoples. In my case, we didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife on the hike, but the trek through the swamp due to early flooding left a lasting impression on both me and my pants.
While I decided to sit it out in favor of some rest, the package also included a visit to an indigenous tribe to sample the native lifestyle and consult with a shaman. Also included was a night hike to see the vast array of giant creepy-crawlies that emerged unnervingly close to the lodge. Remind me never to run through the Amazon in the dark.
My favorite activity – animal encounters aside – was when we finally had an evening with no cloud cover and were able to take a sunset swim on the lagoon. We were offered the use of a paddle board and splashed around as the golden light faded into an amalgam of orange, blues and pinks. Watching the sunset from the water was a truly satisfying moment – the kind that motivates a traveler to come so far in the first place and to treasure the gift of life and the amazing experiences to be had. It was also helpful to forget about whatever dangerous marine life might have been swimming all around me at that very moment. Like I said, this is the Amazon Rain Forest . . .
What Kind of Wildlife Will I See?
This was the foremost question on my mind as we took off from El Puente and curved around one bend in the river after another. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see a flock of macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys leaping through the branches and even a sloth – which are much easier to photograph in action than the others for obvious reasons.
During the rest of the trip, we got up early for birdwatching, and while I can’t recall the name of every bird I saw – the majority of which decided to stay inconveniently high up in the canopy so that I wouldn’t get a clear shot with my camera – there were plenty to see. From the lodge itself I saw adorable tamarinds playing in the trees, caught sight of a caiman in the creek behind us and there’s no mistaking the disturbingly loud howls of howler monkeys as they pass by – especially when it’s four in the morning.
On the river we caught glimpses of pink river dolphins, who sadly are not as curious or playful as their open water brethren. Every so often there would also be disturbances in the water from what our guide assured us were very big fish, so keep an eye out for real life river monsters.
In addition, we saw lots of other types of monkeys, more sloths, and even caught a glimpse of an anteater who was in a hurry. During the night walk there were some hand-sized fisherman spiders, and just as scary-looking smaller ones that are still bigger than the biggest spiders where I’m from. I didn’t see any tarantulas but was assured that they’re out there. We even saw a scorpion spider, which is neither scorpion nor spider, but still gave off the whole heebie-jeebie vibe.
A highlight for me was seeing not just one but two anacondas on our ride back, as well as a black snake whose body disappeared into the brush. Apparently after rainy days they’ll sun themselves on tree branches along the river, and thus make great subjects for up close photos.
Since this kind of trip is all about immersion in nature, bear in mind that electric power is only available at certain times, so be sure to charge those cameras and batteries when you can. Speaking of cameras, much of the wildlife you’ll see will be beyond the normal zoom range of your lens, so if you come looking for National Geographic type shots, you’d better invest in a dedicated zoom lens if you’re going to capture the facial expressions of a troop of capuchin monkeys in the upper canopy.
Considering how much time and effort it takes to get to Cuyabeno, I highly recommend a stay of at least 3 nights or even more if you really want to take your time without the threat of a few bad days of weather ruining your trip. This is the rain forest, so expect some rain, which literally puts a damper on wildlife viewing trips and sort of defeats the purpose of a sunset swim. Ponchos and rubber boots are provided, but long pants and long sleeved shirts for night walks – as well as a flashlight – are your own responsibility. Note too that due to the ‘black’ water surrounding the area, which is high in organic materials and acids, mosquitoes are not an issue and there’s no real threat of malaria – but you never can be too sure, can you?
Getting to the Amazon was high on my list of travel goals. This sort of natural immersion was just what I needed and exactly what I wanted. Honestly, aside from that amazing sunset swim, my favorite experience was lounging in a hammock and listening to the cacophony of noise from a myriad of insects and who knows what else as night approached. That’s the mystique of the Amazon region: you never know what’s just around the next bend in the river, and in my book, such mystery will forever be considered muy bueno.
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